One spring break in college, my girlfriends and I decided to go backpacking in the Ozarks of Arkansas. With great ambition, we created a 50-mile loop that kept us in the thick of the woods for four solid days. (We ended up losing the trail on day three and had to call 911 so a ranger could lead us out… but that’s another story.) As we looked at options for our trip’s start and end date, it became clear that the most convenient plan placed us mid-loop on a Sunday. This posed a problem we couldn’t ignore. How could we attend Mass in the middle of nowhere? Trying to find a loophole that would get us out of our Sunday obligation, we asked our campus chaplain if we could get a travel dispensation. Like any father who recognizes a child trying to get out of something, he gently smiled and said, “No.” Annoyed but not surprised, we went back to the drawing board until we found a new Mass accommodating plan.
This experience wasn’t the first or last time being a Catholic pushed me to make a countercultural move that secular society would likely flag as questionable. It’s just one hour on a Sunday. What’s the big deal about missing once in a while?
As Catholics, we know the Church invites us to embrace life choices that don’t always make sense to the world. Donating a portion of your hard-earned money? We call that tithing. Spending 40 days giving up something you love AND not eating meat on Fridays? That’s Lent. Standing up against a culture of death? Justice compels us. Praying for our enemies? It’s the gospel.
While these invitations come with deeply reasonable explanations, that doesn’t always make it easy to say “yes” to them. This can be especially true when we consider how we live in an increasingly hostile world to Christian values. Gone are the days when standing against Christian principles is considered brave; now, standing for them is brave.
So, if at times you find yourself annoyed by, or lacking in courage for, the call to live counterculturally, allow me to offer three steps that I have found helpful in learning how not just to tolerate the call, but to witness it with joy.
Step 1: Receive His Joy
“Choose joy” has become a popular mantra that’s plastered onto countless crewneck sweatshirts and coffee mugs. I’m just going to be honest here — I’m not a fan of the phrase. Sure, there’s something to be said about creating a mindset that focuses on the good, but what happens when one can’t muster up the strength to choose joy? For Christians, there’s good news here.
In his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul recounted when he begged the Lord to remove a thorn from his side. Unsurprisingly, God’s response was not, “Hey, Paul, don’t let it bother you, just choose joy!” Instead, what God told him was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:19).
God knew Paul couldn’t do it. He knew he was incapable of choosing joy amid his struggle. So, instead of expecting Paul to find some superhuman willpower, God told him he would give him his grace.
God’s grace is the source of our joy, not just something we choose. This joy is a natural consequence, or fruit, of a life lived in the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). These truths are written all over Scripture. The prophet Nehemiah declares, “the joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:11). Jesus tells the crowds he’s preaching to them so “that my joy may be in you” (Jn 15:11). And St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that despite affliction, they possess “joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6).
If we want lasting, abiding joy, we don’t need to choose it; instead, we need to receive it. So when you struggle with being a joyful, countercultural witness, open your heart to the joy of the Lord, and let him be your strength.
Step 2: Stand in Spiritual Traffic
If receiving God’s grace is necessary for being a joyfully countercultural witness, then the next question is: How does one go about receiving God’s grace? Well, if you want to get hit by a car, your best chance for achieving that goal is to run into oncoming traffic. While this doesn’t guarantee you’ll get hit, it definitely increases your chances. We can apply this same principle to the spiritual life. If we want to receive God’s grace, we need to place ourselves in the path of his grace and ask him to pour out the free gift of his help upon us.
Two of the best places to do this are through prayer and the sacraments. In prayer, God can speak into our lives as we bring our needs to him. Of course, he already knows our needs before we express them, but just like he asked the blind man Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10:51), he desires for us to vocalize our needs to him.
Additionally, God desires to pour out his graces upon us when we come to him in the sacraments. God has created a way to be with us physically through the sacraments. Whether through confession where the priest stands in the person of Christ to forgive our sins or through the Eucharist where simple bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, God wants to be with us. He wants to walk with us, touch us and be present in our lives. When we place ourselves in his presence in these very real ways, his grace can transform us. So, if you are struggling to be a joyful, countercultural witness to your co-workers, family or friends, do not hesitate to stand in the path of God’s grace. He will meet you there.
Step 3: Learn the ‘Whys’
Finally, in addition to the support of God’s grace, I’ve found that it never hurts to understand the “whys” behind the Church’s countercultural teachings.
In my own life, there have been times when I’ve begrudgingly followed the Church’s instructions out of a sense of obligation. I obeyed because I was supposed to. However, in those times, my witness was anything but joyful because I found it challenging to go against secular society when the values I was asked to stand for didn’t make sense to me. Finding purpose in suffering, being open to life, refusing to use the Lord’s name in vain, living the virtue of chastity — whatever the issue, the world offered a counter-narrative that typically appeared more fun and appealing. Yet I found that a very reasonable answer always surfaced when I took the time to research why the Church teaches what it teaches. This knowledge led to conviction, and conviction led to following not out of obligation but with joy.
Venerable Fulton Sheen once famously said, “There are not 100 people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” If there are issues within the Church that don’t make sense to you, consider researching them. Find a credible book, ask your priest, or search Church archives online, but don’t begrudgingly follow out of a sense of obligation. The Church doesn’t want its members to blindly obey. It wants them to understand with conviction. It wants them to discover how to be joyful, countercultural witnesses to a world in need of a Savior.